Half of Thursday’s two-hour meeting was devoted to a Verizon Wireless case, continued from last month, in which the cell phone company argued successfully–and with help from Dawson church–to place a series of cell phone antenna panels atop the church parking deck. (The deck itself had been built with a special height exemption, making the total variance 15 feet.) Due in part to the provisions of federal law requiring local governments to present substantial grounds for denial–which Homewood would be hard-pressed to produce–the board granted the request. See below.
Members present: Lauren Gwaltney, chair, Ty Cole, Jeffrey Foster (S), Stuart Roberts (S), Brian Jarmon, and Beverly LeBoeuf.
Members absent: Hope Cannon.
Staff present: Greg Cobb and Vanessa McGrath of the Building, Engineering and Zoning Department; Planning and zoning clerk Donna Bridges.
Audience attendance: 17
*Note on procedure: By law, zoning variances granted by the 5-member board require a super majority of 4 members voting in the affirmative. To keep business moving in case of absences, the law also allows two supernumerary members (S) to sit in and vote if needed. In the following cases, one regular member being absent, supernumerary members took turns voting. Variances expire n 180 days if a building permit isn’t obtained.
Carried over the following cases to April: 1) 141 East Hawthorne Road, lot division request by applicant RMR Property Group; 2) 305 Woodland Drive, Second floor addition; 3) 185 Oxmoor Road, request by Waffle House company to demo and rebuild a restaurant with variances requested to retain existing sign, ceiling and door height, glass, and setback.
Approved variances to allow Verizon cell phone panel antennas on top of Dawson’s parking deck: This case to place up to 9 panels extending approximately 8 feet from the top of the deck at 1019 Oxmoor Road was carried over last month after board members asked for more information to support the request, to justify Verizon’s hardship, and understand the need and benefit to customers in Homewood. The current Dawson Memorial parking deck is already 7.2-feet higher than regulations in a variance granted when it was built.
On Thursday, Baker Donelson lawyer Andy Rotenstreich presented Verizon’s case for the height variance for antennas to fill a “significant coverage gap” in west central Homewood. Responding to a series of questions raised in February’s meeting, Mr. Rotenstreich presented enough documentation to satisfy the board that the “coverage gap” (a term with legal significance under federal law) existed and other options had been considered. Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, which will lease the space, was represented by church member Phillip Corley, who described the church’s process for consideration of Verizon’s request, including architectural and aesthetic input.
Mr. Rotenstreich indicated that using Dawson’s existing structure was the least intrusive method to address Verizon’s coverage gap in the area. In response to board questions about the feasibility of moving the antennas farther back on the parking deck so they would be less visible from Oxmoor Road, he said Verizon needed the extra 11.5-feet in height from the elevator penthouse to get the signal past the trees and the deck parapet. The associated equipment would be located on the second floor of the deck, in an area approximately 15-feet by 18-feet.
He showed photos of similar exposed antennas on top of Regions Bank and Embassy Suites in Homewood compared with antennas that had been screened from view at other locations. Verizon prefers exposed antennas. Although no one spoke in opposition at the hearing, it was clear board members were unhappy with the aesthetics and several said they would be more receptive if Verizon would proffer some sort of visual screen. However, Dawson had previously rejected the screening option in its own review, saying the antennas would actually be less obtrusive than with an attempt to screen them.
Will this start an avalanche of antenna requests from other carriers? That remains to be seen. Board members asked aloud if an approval would open the door to requests from other carriers. As an answer, Mr. Cobb pointed out that city ordinances prohibited the installation of antennas on single family homes, and nearby apartments were only two stories tall and would not provide enough height to attract other wireless carriers.
A final subject for discussion was the effect of federal law, which apparently limited the ability of local authorities to oppose cell phone antennas where significant coverage gaps existed. Ms. McGrath said the city’s attorney, Mike Kendrick, had made clear that any grounds for any denial would have to be substantial and clearly set out in writing.
At this point, Verizon and Dawson made one proffer–that the antennas would not be moved any closer to Oxmoor Road than indicated on the drawings. The board voted unanimously in favor.
Approved a front yard variance for an addition on Parkridge Drive: Homeowners at 2922 Parkridge Drive were asking to build 3.7-feet beyond the existing front of the house, which was built with a prior 13.7-foot variance, for a total variance of 17 feet. The homeowners and architect sought the variance to add a second floor to the house, whose first floor (because of the age of the house) already projected into the front setback by the same amount.
The homeowners originally sought a 17-foot front setback variance, which would have been needed to accommodate a balcony, citing as hardship the fact that the resulting setback would be consistent with neighboring houses. They abandoned their request for the balcony, and received unanimous approval for a setback variance that would allow their second floor to coincide with the setback of the first floor.
Approved a parking space variance for an addition facing Highland Road: The case is at 300 Mecca Avenue but involves a spur of Highland Road that dead-ends on the property. The homeowners are planning to add a master bedroom in the rear of the 1952 house, a renovation substantial enough to require the property to conform to modern codes, including two on-site parking spaces. Citing as a hardship the unusually steep lot, the homeowners asked to locate the two spaces on the Highland Road spur.
During the public hearing, an owner of two landlocked lots on Edgeview Avenue, behind the property, was concerned that the parking spaces might interfere with the city ever extending Highland Road to access his lots. Board members ultimately compromised by allowing the variance for parking on the Highland Road spur, but only if the contractor also provided drawings for parking behind the house in case the city extended Highland Road. With this proffer, the parking space variance was granted unanimously.
Approved left setback variances for a first and second floor addition on Kenilworth: The homeowner at 312 Kenilworth Drive is planning a kitchen remodel within the existing building boundary and requested a .6-foot left setback for the first floor and a 1.6-foot left setback for the second floor (the house is already built into the setbacks by those amounts.) The contractor cited as hardship the loss of space a further setback would create, plus the necessary reworking of the roofline to divert water if her variances weren’t granted. Her request was granted.
Denied a request for a front setback variance on Parkridge: After an extended discussion, the board denied a request for a 6-foot 1.5-inch front building variance to allow a new front porch at 2919 Parkridge Dr. The homeowner and his architect stated that the addition of an 8-foot front porch would significantly improve the appearance of the house and make it more consistent with neighboring properties, citing as a hardship the shape of the lot, which forced the house to be built closer to the street than usual. After the homeowner rejected the notion of locating the porch steps to the side of the house, board members voted to deny, concluding the porch would bring the house too close to the street.
Denied one variance and granted another for a two-story addition on Roseland: The board granted a 12.7-foot front setback variance, which the house at 1700 Roseland Drive already occupies, and denied a 5.74-foot right side variances for a second floor addition.
In presenting their case, the homeowners cited as their hardship a previous lot division that had left their corner property significantly smaller than neighboring lots. They wanted to add square footage without sacrificing the remaining backyard, but the board found their plan intrusive to the neighboring lot. The case was also complicated with timing details, as plans had been changed several times since the first submission–the most recent being the day of the hearing–meaning there had been no notice to the public about the latest plan. In the interest of time, since they had already moved out for the remodeling, the homeowners withdrew one of their requests and agreed to let the other two be voted on separately. With one dissenting vote, the request for the front variance was granted, and the request for a second-floor right side variance was rejected 3-2.
Voting against the front setback variance: Lauren Gwaltney
Voting against the second floor variance: Lauren Gwaltney, Beverly LeBoeuf, and Jeffrey Foster.
The meeting adjourned at 7:50 pm.